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May 7, 2021

Unlocking a Theology of Intimacy

How do Christians understand their relationships in light of the gospel?
Unlocking a Theology of Intimacy
Image: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

“I can live without sex, but I cannot live without intimacy.” I was sitting in the audience of a conference when one of the guest speakers spoke these words. This pronouncement caught hold of me and has lingered in my mind ever since. Though it is a counter-cultural statement, it is not remarkable to note that a person can live without sex. Secular narratives echo in our churches when we elevate our desire for sex to primary need. Christina Hitchcock notes that “secular America has marked sexual activity not only as a sign of true adulthood but, more importantly, as the sign of true humanity.”[1] Yet, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs notwithstanding, the example of the earthly life of Jesus Christ shows that the basic requirements for life do not include having sex. So, if sex is optional, what is this “intimacy” we cannot live without?

There are few things that can be said about every person no matter when or where they are born. Few things unite all of humanity throughout history and culture. Christ followers affirm that one universal human condition is original sin. We orient our understanding of the truths of the gospel and what it means to be human based on this reality.

In addition, we are also all born with a need to connect. From the womb we are hardwired to crave intimate relationships. Attachment Theory teaches us that throughout our lives we navigate a variety of healthy and unhealthy attachments in our intimate relationships. This instinct for intimacy is as pervasive as original sin and as fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be human. But does it also tell us about the gospel? It seemed odd to me that a loving, relational Creator would infuse a universal need for intimacy into us and then have it not shed any light on our purposes in the triune God’s eternal, salvific mission.

I did not set out on this journey to unlock the mysteries of the human condition. It began with my students. While discussions around intimate relationships is not unique to emerging adults, there is also something significant about this time of life that highlights the need for a theology of intimacy. Jeffery Arnett coined the phrase “emerging adulthood” and summarized it as a time between the age of 18 and into one’s late twenties where individuals experience a time of identity formation, exploring meaning, transience and instability, autonomy, self-focus, freedom from oversight or significant responsibilities, are caught between adolescence and full adulthood but optimistic about the future and the possibility for multiple opportunities.[2] In my work as a college chaplain, I see students dating (often for the first time), getting engaged, and getting married. They are also figuring out singleness, roommates, friendships, and community.

Additionally, they are in transition with their families of origin by navigating how to shift from being a dependent adolescent to being an independent adult. This is difficult for both students and their parents. It’s not as if someone sends you an instructive email when it is time for you to stop parenting your child. My emerging adults fill my office hours with questions and conversations about how to navigate their intimate relationships. What I found during my early years in emerging adult ministry was that my students were frustrated and confused. They love Jesus and have a solid faith in Christ as their Savior, but there was a discernable disconnect between how they understood their faith, and how they made decisions in their relationships.

They do not lack resources. My students have read books, attended conferences, watched videos, and follow a myriad of social media influencers in their quest for a theology of intimacy. I read the books they are reading, follow the popular Christian influencers that they love, and even with having lived twice as long as they have, I found myself struggling to help them. Where do we start? Why aren’t the volumes of resources about Christian relationships reflecting clarity or maturity in my students? I needed to ask different questions if I wanted to disciple my students.

I began my research for a theology of intimacy with a hypothesis. I believed that Scripture held the key. My students all know the classic verses about sexual ethics and behaviors. I wanted to start somewhere more foundational. I wanted to know why we were created to connect and what Scripture had to say about intimacy. I went into my research trusting that Scripture contained a robust theology of intimacy, but I did not know exactly where it was or what it was. It took months of research and consultation but in the end, my search for a theology of intimacy didn’t start in the Song of Solomon, but in the Gospels.

As it turns out, Christ and the gospel are at the heart of intimacy. It is no coincidence that among other relational motifs, the use of parent, spouse, and friend are central to the way the triune God communicates salvation, mission, and relationship. Intimacy is not just found in the relational divinity of the Trinity, but through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Intimacy is the conduit for our membership into the family and church of God. This indwelling is an intimacy unlike anything we can fathom or relate to in our human existence. Christ dwells with us and in us. In passages like Romans 8:14-17 and John 15:12-15 we see the use of these intimacy motifs to explain our transition from orphan to adopted, rejected to embraced, isolated to beloved. In the various examples of God as spouse, the same themes resonate. We are not simply pieces in an economic transaction. Intimacy is the framework for how the gospel lives and exists in our lives. It contains messages of restoration, identity formation, sanctification, and sacrificial love. We cannot truly preach the gospel without intimacy. The very hope we cling to in Christ is an intimate relationship that shapes the way we engage in and understand all of our other intimate relationships.

I conducted an ethnographic study of my emerging adults in an effort to understand the theology (or lack thereof) that informed their own ideas about intimacy. I was listening for any gospel themes or language that might be informing their own intimate relationships. Even though my demographic could demonstrate a relationship with Christ and an active faith, they struggled to articulate any theology of intimacy. I still puzzle over why our theology of intimacy is so anemic and distorted. What are the flaws in our current approach to discipleship that those who are wrestling daily with friendships, marriage, and family are unable to connect the gospel to their relationships?

For myself, I’m still examining how a lifetime of church attendance, an active faith, ordination, and even my full-time ministry position did not build me up with a gospel-centered paradigm for intimacy. Going back and locating intimacy in the heart of the gospel has changed my ministry entirely. When our intimate relationships remain cut adrift from the gospel, our witness is as stake. How can we hope to orient our relationships and behaviors in the kingdom mission of Christ if our approach to intimacy has more to do with behavior modification than with gospel transformation? With this research, I hope to change the kinds of questions and theological applications my emerging adults use in their intimate relationships.

I also hope that by doing a biblical and systematic inquiry of a theology of intimacy, that I might inspire other ministers to emerging adults to ask better questions about intimacy and our current approach to pastoring this population in our churches and on our campuses. By suggesting that we “ask better questions,” my intent is to shape a conversation that begins with the gospel and trinitarian origins of intimacy.

With this gospel framework I suspect that new resources and discipleship strategies will ground emerging adults in why God created us to connect, what intimacy is for, and how the gift of relationship is designed to lead us to Christ. With that foundation we can then move into niche discussions about family, dating, friendship, singleness, chastity, community, marriage, sexuality, and all the behaviors that need gospel transformation for health and flourishing. The goal, of course, is not just healthy intimacy but how intimacy is bound up in a transformative gospel experience and witness.

The challenge is not just reorienting the way we engage intimacy topics in faith settings. Ultimately, we are invited by Christ to participate in a redemption mission in our lives, churches, and society. The distortions that need the gospel infest both our church and the world at large. By continuing to critically evaluate our discipleship methods and messages, we have an opportunity to learn from and be bearers of Christ’s love and life-giving presence to a broken, aching world. A robust theology of intimacy can be a renewed source of gospel truth for the good of the church and the life of the world.

[1] Christina S. Hitchcock, The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 14.

[2] Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development from the Late Teens through the Twenties.,” American Psychologist 55.5 (2000): 469–80.

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Unlocking a Theology of Intimacy